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Authentic Community Theatre hopes to invoke thought and change through 'Rent'

Authentic Community Theatre hopes to invoke thought and change through 'Rent'

The musical “Rent” is set in New York’s East Village in the 1990s during the time of the AIDS epidemic. But its themes of struggle, addiction, threat of impending death, and the importance of love, respect and friendship are not unfamiliar to those living today in Washington County and the surrounding area.

That’s part of the reason Authentic Community Theatre decided to bring “Rent” to the stage at The Maryland Theatre. The show will run Friday, March 22 and Saturday, March 23.

ACT President Robbie Soto said in considering productions for the current season, “Rent” was “at the top of the list.”

“We are dealing with a huge drug problem in our area,” he said. “It’s really important to me as president of the organization to do shows that are not only about going out and having a good time, but we are hoping to invoke thought and change in people.”

ACT is partnering with Washington County Goes Purple, Soto said, with a portion of proceeds from “Rent” ticket sales pledged to the substance abuse awareness program. ACT offers classes and camps for children and teens in the community and sometimes sees first-hand the toll addiction takes on families, he said. Some students who take classes have parents or other family members who are dealing with addiction and recovery.

“We see how hard this can be on a young person. We want to be a part of getting to young people before addiction happens, or combatting this by talking to and educating young people before it begins,” Soto said. “We want to do what we can to raise awareness and to be a part of that fight.”

Soto, 29, of Greencastle, Pa., is directing the show and portraying the role of Tom Collins. Natasha Smith is choreographer and Stephen Pompa is musical director.

As part of its preparation, ACT’s “Rent” cast took part in a master class with Tony winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who appeared in the original Broadway production of “Rent” and in the 2005 film. ACT hosted the class in December at its facility on Florida Avenue in Hagerstown.

“Rent,” which is loosely based on Puccini’s “La boheme,” follows a year in the life of a group of friends and the struggles they go through individually and together. As director, Soto chose to establish roughly a year-long rehearsal schedule to impart to the cast a sense of dynamic relationships that develop over a period of time.

“(The show) is about not dwelling on what the future could be. It’s about focusing on living in the moment,” Soto said.

ACT veteran Kristen Davis, 23, of Hagerstown, plays the role of Maureen Johnson, a performance artist whom Davis describes as “over the top and eccentric.”

“Maureen is very concerned with social justice. Her character is weird and fun to get into,” Davis said. “She is definitely much more ‘outside the box’ than me. It’s been fun to force myself out of my bubble and be kind of crazy.”

Davis, a dance teacher, said a tragedy in her own life helped inspire her role in “Rent.” One of her young students passed away unexpectedly at just 13 in a car accident during the rehearsal process.

“That really hit home for me,” she said. “It helped me step into the show and made it real. It’s very tragic, but it also helps me to portray the character the way that she needs to be portrayed.”

Chad-Michael Gilbert, 24, of Hagerstown who plays the role of Angel, said the show reveals painful aspects of what real life is for a lot of people, including people in the Hagerstown area.

“We are not wearing goofy costumes. We are real-life characters. We show what is life day to day for a lot of people,” he said. “We are trying to bring awareness to people of what the extremes can be. There are homeless, junkies, gays, lesbians, all walks of life. This is a show that exists for everybody. It is raw and it really wakes up the brain.”

Rainelle Jochum, 26, of Westminster, Md., portrays Joanne Jefferson, a character unlike many of the others in “Rent” in that she comes from a strong family and has a Harvard education and financial resources. She does not need to interact with the other characters for socio-economic reasons, but does so because of her complicated relationship with Maureen.

The production is Jochum’s second turn in “Rent.” She performed in the show once before as an ensemble member, and connects with its rock opera style as well as its themes.

“The show helps to shine a light and hold a mirror,” she said. “Just being able to take an honest look at things like the problem of opioid addiction can help. When you have more awareness you can begin to try and fix it.”

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